Measuring English Proficiency in Real-World Situations

Trust — but verify. We trust that English language learners are gaining something through their studies, but how do we verify what they actually can do with their language skills? We may believe that a job candidate has the language ability to take a certain position, but where is the proof?

The answer comes through evaluation of language proficiency using a common measuring stick, such as the proficiency guidelines published by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). These evaluators describe “what individuals can do with language in terms of speaking, writing, listening and reading in real-world situations in a spontaneous and non-rehearsed context.”

The ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines 2012 present five major levels of proficiency as ranges (11 total when including sublevels), making them a useful instrument of the evaluation of functional language ability regardless of where, when or how the language was acquired.

First published in 1986 as an adaption of the U.S. Government’s Interagency Roundtable Skill Level Descriptions, the Proficiency Guidelines have been revised twice since then — most recently in November 2012 — making them the most recently updated standards in language education.

Don’t let the “foreign languages” title throw you, the Proficiency Guidelines are very much geared toward ESL/ESOL. The Guidelines are offered in 12 languages including English, French, German and Spanish, as well as some less-commonly-taught languages.

English language learners who have reached a certain level of proficiency can use the ACTFL test results as documentation that they have achieved this level. So can a job seeker who is tested for a position requiring a certain level of language.

There are five major levels of proficiency delineated for each of the four skills (i.e., speaking, writing, listening, reading) described in the Guidelines: Distinguished, Superior, Advanced, Intermediate and Novice. The three lower levels are further subdivided into High, Mid and Low (e.g., Novice High, Intermediate Mid, Advanced Low).

Distinguished — the highest level — was added in the most recent version to provide a more complete picture of the top proficiency levels. Speakers at the Distinguished level “produce highly sophisticated and tightly organized extended discourse,” according to the 2012 Guidelines.

Teachers who know them agree that proficiency levels are a much more useful measure of language than grades or seat time.

“Without some type of guide, we have no way of measuring students’ proficiency,” said Carol Gaab, president of TPRS Publishing and the head of the ESL program for the San Francisco Giants baseball team.

Gaab continues: “Guidelines help learners to ‘see’ their progress in a more tangible way. A grade on a typical homework assignment or a test is not an accurate indicator of one’s ability to communicate. Grades are a waste of time, in my opinion. Grades merely reflect one’s ability to manipulate the system or one’s refusal to conform to the system.

“Proficiency levels are perpetual, much like a minimum balance annuity. One’s balance (or level) will never drop below the guaranteed minimum. As a language learner, once you reach a certain proficiency level, you will either maintain that level or move up on the scale over the course of time. Conversely, to earn a grade, say an A, one must continually study and consciously apply him/herself for each subsequent assessment. One can drop from an A to F in a matter of minutes.”

Some states, such as New Jersey, require new ESL teachers to pass a language proficiency test in oral and writing skills based on the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines.

“These tests determine functional language ability based on the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines,” says Raquel Sinai, bilingual education coordinator in the New Jersey Department of Education. “We conducted standard-setting meetings in which participants were required to become familiar with the ACTFL Guidelines and familiar with spoken and written samples of language use at each ACTFL level.”

Lori Langer de Ramirez, who has taught ESL, Spanish and French, was formerly an ESL/world languages department coordinator. Today, she directs the world/classical languages and global language initiatives at a private school in New York, and she believes the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines can be useful for all language teachers, particularly those teaching English in U.S. classrooms

“Often as ESL teachers, we see different kinds of entry points for students — kids with different skill sets. Some may be strong in interpersonal speaking but then academic reading and writing is where they fall apart,” Langer de Ramirez said. “The Guidelines give you another window into the process of acquiring language and also gives you really good terminology for describing where students are.”

Langer de Ramirez feels the Guidelines offer value “if teachers are looking to really understand where a kid is in their language acquisition” and want “a robust means of describing students’ proficiency levels.”

The 2012 Guidelines are available online, supported with glossed terminology and annotated, multimedia samples of performance at each level for speaking and writing, and examples of oral and written texts and tasks associated with each level for reading and writing. ESL teachers will be particularly interested in exploring the English Proficiency Guidelines online.

By: Sandy Cutshall

Lisa March is a bilingual Marketing and Sales Executive. She works closely with LTI on strategic partnerships, business development and marketing. Her efforts help LTI scale the use and implementation of language assessments in schools, institutions, corporations and government agencies.